How the Bishops Found Their Voice

What a difference four years make. In 2004 a small number of bishops publicly criticized the pro-abortion position of the Democrat running for president. This election year, they have grown to a large and lusty choir taking strong public stands against the pro-abortion politics of the Democratic ticket and their loudest supporters. Why such a difference from 2004 to now?

Late in 2003, when John Kerry’s candidacy was looking possible, the Democratic-leaning members of the American episcopacy faced a daunting conundrum. Here was the first Catholic candidate for president in a generation: a “good Democrat” who just happened to be bad on abortion, but also a candidate sure to inflame the ire of some bishops and many of the faithful. What to do?

Seemingly out of nowhere, a new group was formed, the “Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians,” to develop guidelines on how the bishops should respond to Catholic politicians who defy Church doctrine – including the question of withholding Communion and more.

Some reports at the time said the task force was a response to the Vatican’s doctrinal note on Catholics in political life a year before. But this now appears naïve. The reality seems to be that it was established to address the looming question of how the bishops would deal with a Kerry candidacy. Or rather, not deal with it.

The task force came into being at the request of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, then Archbishop of Washington, DC, and was approved by the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Having initiated the idea, McCarrick was the obvious person to run it.

The first observable effect of the task force was to silence the staff of the USCCB Pro-Life Secretariat. My wife was the principal public spokesman for that office at the time. She was told not to answer any questions about Kerry and abortion in light of the task force.

Less easy to gauge was the effect of the task force on bishops’ willingness to speak out. Were they also made to understand that they should hold their tongues in deference to the official group and the guidelines they produced?

And when would the task force issue its guidelines? It became clear that the guidelines would not be issued until after the election – long after they could have any bearing on the candidacy of the first pro-abortion Catholic in American history to run for president.

Was it Cardinal McCarrick’s purpose to establish a study group in order to bury the problem until after the election? It’s impossible to know, but we can consider the effects of his actions: the task force was established at his request, the Pro-Life Secretariat was silenced on the most pressing pro-life issue of the time, the bishops in large part stayed mum likely in deference to the ongoing study, a study which was timed not to end until well past the election.

We know now that things spun out of control. While Cardinal McCarrick’s final report was scheduled for after the election, the bishops held one of their twice-annual meetings in Colorado that June and two unusual things happened: the mostly liberal lay staff was booted out of the meeting so that the bishops could talk without their influence, and Cardinal McCarrick delivered “interim reflections” of the task force.

He warned against denying anyone the Eucharist, and he claimed that “Vatican officials” also “advised caution,” and concluded that, “The task force does not advocate the denial of Communion to Catholic politicians.”

Yet several days later the actual memorandum from Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal McCarrick was leaked to the press, showing that Ratzinger had said, in fact, that pro-abortion Catholic politicians “must” be refused Communion after proper counseling and obstinate persistence in defying Church teaching. Ultimately, the bishops as a body produced a document leaving the matter to the discretion of each bishop in his own diocese.

This is old news, but sheds new light on the current debate. This year there is no McCarrick Committee keeping the conversation sotto voce among an elite few. And this year the bishops are thundering. It is not just the heroic few – Chaput, Burke, and a few others – who were willing to suffer criticism in 2004. Now it is a whole bunch of them, more than thirty at this point. Moreover, the list includes those – like Edward Cardinal Egan of New York and McCarrick’s successor Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington DC – who have tended to work quietly behind the scenes in the past.

Other things have changed. In years past, the partisan and the timid seemed to put a damper on an enthusiastic pro-life message coming out of the USCCB and from individual bishops. Some of them are gone, including Democrat Frank Monaghan who for thirty years ran the bishops’ governmental lobby shop. Gone also is Mark Chopko, the general counsel who regularly frightened pro-life Bishops with the IRS boogeyman.

And here we are four years later. McCarrick is largely quiet. The timid and the partisan, some of them anyway, are gone. A pro-abortion Catholic is running for Vice-President and the bishops have found their voice. Isn’t it glorious!


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.